“I walked with a zombie”, in spite of it’s incredibly lurid, B-movie title, is surprisingly decent. The main character Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is a nurse who is hired to go to a Caribbean island (fictitious, but with similarities to Haiti), to look after a sugar plantation owner’s sick wife. Tom Conway plays Paul Holland, the plantation owner, whose wife is catatonic. Naturally nurse falls in love with plantation owner, and eventually is able to be with him due to (spoiler alert) the death of the wife. So, the plot is essentially ‘Jane Eyre’.
Jacques Tourneur, the director of “Cat People”, also directed this film. Again he shows a knack with atmospheric use of light and sound. The nurse’s initial introduction to her patient is accidental, as she hears weird shrieking at night and goes to investigate. The screams echo through the building, making it hard to tell exactly where they are coming from, and coupled with the low lighting give a very creepy atmosphere. In a later segment of the story the nurse takes her patient to a voodoo ceremony, after one of the workers at the house tells her they can help. During this sequence there is no incidental music. The sounds are of wind through the sugar cane, drums, and other incidental sounds from the environment. As it’s a rural area there is no sound of traffic, so the silence of the night with only the wind and the drums again helps to elevate the eeriness of the situation. It is unexpected that a film of the forties is so sparing with its score, but this director seems to have a good grasp of when a lack of music can be more evocative and atmospheric.
For a film made in the forties, the depiction of the black cast was much better than might have been expected. When the nurse is in a cart being taken to her new employment, the black driver tells her that his ancestors were brought to the island as slaves. She remarks cheerily that they were ‘brought to a beautiful place’. While the modern viewer is cringing at this comment, the driver responds ‘as you say, miss,’ a noncommittal answer which avoids argument while not kowtowing to her blissfully ignorant assumptions. Paul Holland addresses the history of slavery on the island, when he tells Betsy that the current inhabitants ‘cry at a birth and celebrate a funeral’, harking back to the days of slavery where being born into such a life could be considered tragic, while being released from it would be cause for celebration. It is rare in films of the period for the cruelty of this history to be spelled out so plainly.
The relationship of black to white in this film is uncomfortable for the modern viewer. White characters make statements such as ‘these people are primitive’. That being said, the black characters are depicted in a better way than many movies of the time. They speak well, not in any kind of pidgin English. The Voodoo part of the plot done with a certain level of respect. The white people don’t believe it, but they don’t sneer much, and the ceremonies depicted are closer to the real thing than you might have expected in the 40s. I think this film had good roles for black actors at the time – they have proper speech, dignity, and cultural respect. The voodoo practitioners never speak but are depicted going about their rituals without any unnecessary caricature or grotesquery.
The white family at the centre of the story does not fare well, and it soon becomes clear why the black inhabitants of the island look on them with a certain level of perplexity (as illustrated by the (frankly creepy) fellow with the guitar winding up the white folk with his gossip song). Paul Holland acts aloof to hide his depression. His younger brother Wesley (James Ellison) comes across as somewhat whiny, drinking too much and complaining openly that his brother wouldn’t let him run off with his wife (another head-scratching attitude). Their mother (Edith Barrett) shamelessly uses cultural appropriation of indigenous beliefs in order to manipulate the people. Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), is catatonic throughout the movie, but we learn a lot about her and her infidelity. Wesley’s claims that Paul has ‘driven her mad’ can be taken with more than a grain of salt given his vested interest in discrediting his brother because he didn’t get what he wanted. (There are a lot of different explanations given for the condition of Jessica – Wesley says Paul has driven her mad, the doctor says she’s sick, the mum says she cast a voodoo spell on Jessica, and so on. This is really not a stable family.)
A character who really helps with the general air of mystery is Carrefour, played by Darby Jones. Carrefour is an (apparently) zombified servant of the voodoo priest, who has no lines and who walks around or stands looking spooky and sinister. It doesn’t sound like much but this actor does this really well, and is very creepy as a result.
A modern audience might question some of the activities of the nurse. She takes her patient out in the middle of the night to a voodoo ceremony. Does she dress Jessica appropriately for such an outing? No, the woman is still in floaty, flowing robes, not really suited for hiking through sugar cane. Betsy’s reasons for doing this are dubious at best. She decided she would try this because a servant told her someone else had a similar illness and got better. She has no way of knowing if it is the same illness, or if the other character is telling her the truth. She just decides to put her patient at risk and go, without saying anything to Paul, her employer. It’s not what you’d call best care practices. Her love for Paul is supposed to excuse her behaviour. I don’t know about that.
I think a good aspect of this film is a certain ambiguity. There is no real evidence of supernatural activity. The voodoo priest is seen carrying out activities that appear to correspond to the action, but this is purely circumstantial. The unhappy ending of both Jessica and Wesley could be nothing more than Wesley’s own breakdown, and nothing to do with voodoo. It is impossible to be certain, one way or the other.
(Fun fact: the disclaimer at the end of the film states “The characters and events depicted in this photoplay are fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living, dead, or possessed, is purely coincidental.” Again, unexpected for a film of the time, so I love the humour.)
“I walked with a zombie” is not a particularly wonderful movie, but it’s got an old-fashioned eeriness that makes for an entertaining hour and a half. The actors are all solid in their roles, and the director has a certain flair for atmosphere that enhances what might have otherwise been a forgettable film. The night sequence when Betsy takes Jessica to the ceremony is particularly good. It’s certainly worth a watch.